I said last week that I was glad Kotoura-san didn’t end with episode 11. It was easily the weakest of the season and certainly not how I want to remember this series, and it turned out to be a very good thing it wasn’t the finale because the actual one was indeed much better (though hardly perfect). I’d adjudge the last episode to have displayed both the things that endear me to the series and the things that annoyed me about it, but since the overall balance on that score is pretty positive, that’s not a bad thing. And in terms of closure, this actually ended up being one of the better final episodes of the last few seasons.
Every so often a series comes along where the premiere is easily the best episode of the show’s run. Depending on how good that premiere was that doesn’t necessarily mean the series isn’t an overall success (I’d use Kotoura-san and Tamako Market as this season’s examples of the two possibilities) but it’s a bit sad even with a good show like this one, as it’s a reminder of unrealized potential. The first episode was a corker – partly due to the disconnect between what I was expecting and what was delivered, no doubt, but also because it delivered some of the darkest and most gripping anime drama in many a season. The series was a bit of a roller-coaster ride after that, right up to the end, and always presented a fascinating yet vexing conundrum about just what sort of show it was trying to be.
I think the problems of Kotoura-san can largely be attributed to pacing. What I can’t say, however, is whether that’s an issue with the anime being one-cour or with the source material itself. Simply put, this is like no other 4-Koma manga adaptation I’ve seen. The format seems (superficially at least) ill-suited to tackling the kind of serious drama this series has confronted over and over during its run. Yet the blockbuster premiere showed that it was very much capable of doing so with astonishing depth and power. Does that mean the format itself is off the hook, and with more time to tell the story the anime would have been an unqualified success? Obviously I don’t know the answer to that but I suspect the issue is more complicated.
Whatever the root cause, the Achilles heel of Kotoura-san is its tendency to oversimplify everything. There are character and story arcs here that had the potential to be much more successful than they were, but paid the price for being rushed through in an episode or two. In the end it seems as if the core message of the series is “Everyone can be forgiven, and probably should be“. While that’s admirable in theory, in practice I find it pretty unsatisfying. I don’t discount the possibility that characters like Moritani and Mifune and even Kumiko-san and Tsukino-san can be redeemed, in dramatic terms I don’t think it can be done the way this show tried to do it. Forgiveness is a complicated topic and it doesn’t hold up well as a central premise when it’s treated like a simple one.
This trend continued right up the finale, where the spectre that’s been hanging over the series since the beginning, Kumiko-san, finally took center-stage. To be honest I’ve smelled this ending coming for a long time, and it still doesn’t really work for me. Feeling conflicted over doing terrible things doesn’t excuse a person from doing terrible things (just as feeling sorry for doing them after the fact doesn’t excuse a person). We saw this exemplified in quite literal terms with Tsukino-san, who was given a kind of modified multiple-personality disorder to illustrate her internal conflicts. With Kumiko it’s more traditional – yes she told her daughter she wished she’d never given birth to her, but hey – at least she felt bad about it when she said it so it must be all good. Right?
Well, not quite – and to be fair, the series doesn’t go quite that far. But we do see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in Kotoura-san – Haruka blaming herself for everything that’s been done to her by other people. To be blunt I don’t find this an especially likeable quality in her character, and I think it’s only a superb performance by Kanemoto Hisako that saves the character in the end. Like the series itself she transitions back and forth between drama and comedy (including her impersonation of a terrible singer when in fact, she’s an excellent one) at the drop of a hat, and is adept at both. But I’m troubled that the series seems unwilling to take a stand about this behavior – in fact the message at times seems to be that it’s quite admirable. There’s an overall unwillingness to make moral judgments that seems to be taken to extremes – in general I fully support open-mindedness, but Kotoura-san could do with a little more spine when it comes to telling us what it believes is right and wrong, if you ask me.
On the other hand, there are times when the series shows insight that surprises me. Just as Kotoura-chan’s seeming cluelessness about the hidden motives of those around her ended up being not cluelessness but indifference, the series itself seems to be telling us that it’s well aware of the seeming incongruity of its character’s behavior. When Mifune finally comes clean about her obvious duplicity in using Haruka for her own purposes, Haruka tells her that she always knew – but as usual, places the blame (falsely) on herself and overlooks it. Haruka tells us in the final episode that, effectively, she knew all along that Manabe-kun was the only one in her circle not playing her and the only one she could trust – yet she acted at times as if he were the least trustworthy person in her life. Maybe this is sort of a deep message in a way – that just because we know in our heart something is true, that doesn’t mean that we’ll act logically based on that knowledge. And maybe it’s a sort of wink from the series telling us that all the headdesk moments (apart from the plotquakes of episode 11, anyway) aren’t lazy writing, but an acknowledgment of the fact that sometimes people just do stupid things when they should know better.
In any event, whatever the root cause, the final result is a series that’s at times unsatisfying but generally admirably entertaining. It was certainly interesting seeing comic genius Ohta Masahiko try his hand at this caliber of drama, and I would definitely like to see more of it. And there’s no denying he’s still a master-class in comedy direction – Kotoura-san is a very, very funny series when it’s willing to embrace that side of itself unreservedly. And it’s the juxtaposition of the screwball ecchi comedy and the ruthlessly dark drama that makes Kotoura-san nearly unique – not just that both sides are present, but that they’re both in display at virtually the same instant in many cases. That’s life, of course – tragedy and humor are always lurking over our shoulder at any given moment, and it’s the ability to laugh at the dark side of life that allows us to carry on with the effort at living.
For me the best single character-driven element in Kotoura-san is the relationship between Kotoura-chan and Manabe-kun, even if there were times it was quite vexing. I found the most memorable line of the finale to be Kotoura’s “There are times when I just want to hear people say what they mean.” That’s rather poignant, coming from someone in her position. In Manabe-kun she’s met the perfect partner for a psychic – someone with no secrets, a boy who’s always true to his heart. So he isn’t perfect – if her were, that would be boring. He obviously and transparently loves Haruka, and that extends – as it should – to being sexually attracted to her (and she is to him, too, though she’s more subtle about it). It seems that there were times when Kotoura almost resented this openness in Manabe, when she pushed him away at the very moments she should have been holding him closest – but perhaps that’s another of those acknowledgements that human behavior can be illogical and self-defeating. It seems that in the end she does really get it – Manabe is the one who loves her unreservedly, for everything she is and everything she isn’t. And that being the one unambiguously true fact that Kotoura-san is willing to embrace, it seems a very good thing to end on.